Artful dodger

Artful dodger

I can resist no longer. I've avoided talking too much about Microsoft and the US Department of Justice, mainly because it's unclear what the implications of that imbroglio will be for the Australian market, but also because Microsoft is something of an easy target at the moment. One doesn't like to laugh at someone when they're down.

As a disclaimer before I start doing so, I should stress that although I prefer not to use a Microsoft operating system, I have quite a few friends who work for Microsoft and I personally use several Microsoft products daily, including Internet Explorer. This very column is churning out of Word 98 for Macintosh.

Last week Bill Gates spoke to the US Congress about the shape of the IT industry and whether Microsoft is being a bully. Jim Barksdale and Scott McNealy sat with him to answer questions from senators, including Orrin Hatch, of Utah, a prominent Microsoft critic.

The amusing part is the degree to which Gates was willing to dodge questions and sidestep issues even when asked directly and with two of his main rivals sitting right next to him. At one point, Hatch asked Gates if he or any Microsoft official had referred to "cutting off Netscape's air supply" by giving Internet Explorer away free. He wanted to know if that was just talk, or it represented an actual strategy.

Gates' reply: "At the end of the day, all we care about is doing great software."

Yeah, OK. Not quite the answer we're looking for. Or any real answer, actually.

At another point in the proceedings Hatch asked: "Does Microsoft occupy a monopoly position in the computer software industry?"

Gates: "Outside this room, and even from members of this panel, you will hear how their products will replace Windows, how Java will supersede Windows, how the browser will turn into an operating system. You'll hear from IBM on its plans for operating systems, so there is competition. If your question is, Ôcan any Microsoft product endure future competition?', the answer is no."

Again, that wasn't quite the question that was asked. But I like the approach; no matter what the question actually is, you just have to restate it as something you're happy to talk about, then you're on safer ground. For instance, Hatch could ask: "Has Microsoft made it a condition for its content partners on Active Channels that they not advertise Netscape's Web browser?"

And Gates could easily deflect with: "If your question is, Ôdoes Mickey Mouse wear big yellow shoes', the answer is yes."

Hatch: "You've said that it's unfair for anyone to stop you incorporating a Web browser in your operating systems because that is such a key function of modern computers. Why then do you not incorporate Word into your operating systems, since that is an even more widely used function of modern computers?"

Gates could say: "You'll hear from many companies about different kinds of pies. Nanna's makes pies, Sara Lee makes pies, the castaways on Gilligan's Island practically lived on coconut cream pie, so there's lots of pie. If your question is, Ôwould I have preferred custard or cream', the answer is that I actually like fruit pies."

Hatch: "But what does that have to do with Web browsers?"

Gates: "Let me be clear on this, because I don't think I can be too clear on this. Let me stress that I like my fruit pies with ice cream."

Hatch: "But, um, browsers?"

Gates: "Vanilla."

Spell checkler

It's one of the joys of being a computer nerd that you get to do all the silly stupid things that most people wouldn't bother with. One of the things I enjoy is finding quirks in word processors' spelling dictionaries. My favourite so far was Microsoft Word 6 for Mac, which didn't like the word "usable", and suggested "suable" as an alternative, a word I've not heard elsewhere, but which I believe is probably synonymous with "actionable". It says a lot about software philosophy and corporate culture, no?

I observe that Word 98 doesn't seem to like "suable", which also says something. There's another quirk in Word 98 that I'm enjoying, which is that anything you type with a number in it is accepted, no matter how ridiculous. I noticed this first when I accidentally typed the word "co9mplex" into a column a few weeks ago. For the less sharp-eyed among you, "complex" is not usually spelt with a "9". Luckily it was caught by our vigilant sub-editors, but not everyone has such a luxury at their disposal.

Why does Word let you throw a numeral into anything and get away with it? W8ho kn5ows?

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